My church, the United Methodist, has just completed the latest convocation of its General Conference, the top governing body of the Church, in St. Louis. And while it is never without controversy, according to all reports this one might have been the tipping point for the world-wide denomination’s unity over a sticking point that has besieged it for several decades, that of a phrase in its doctrine that reads “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and the prohibition of same-sex weddings and the ordination of clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” that flow from it.
The vote margin on this issue in favor of maintaining the doctrine intact has steadily narrowed over the past 20 years or so and this year the 822 delegates representing over 12 million members again maintained it, but only by the slim margin of 53-47%, a result that included and depended on an overwhelming majority of the 42% of the Church’s membership outside the U. S.
The resolution also included stricter consequences for individual and institutional violations, which have been weak and in need of strengthening in light of the defiance of the current rules. And based on the reaction from the delegates on both sides of this issue, it seems likely that, at long last, there will be a significant transformation of the Church as we have known it for over 250 years. For after all, there is a phrase I believe applies here that I have used before in observing intractable issues of this type–it’s called “systemic misunderstanding”, or the situation that exists when two sides of a question cannot resolve their differences and the solution is not simply the need for more information; there simply is not more to be said. In fact, the leaders of the national evangelical organization Good News are arguing that the differences here between the evangelicals and progressives are irreconcilable and that the best option is an amicable separation. I personally don’t think it will come to that, particularly some “grand bargain” under terms that are “amicable”, but a combination of a myriad of evolving transformative solutions seems inevitable. And, as former Senior Pastor Jim Jackson of Houston’s Chapelwood UMC has just written, “…a new world order is emerging. What will be the shape of the future? I have no idea…We are left with this good news about the future: there is reason for hope, because God is still in control”.
As for my position on the underlying issues in this debate, I am on record a number of times over the years in The Texas Pilgrim and I won’t belabor it here, but the most comprehensive essay on the subject for me was one I wrote in response to a subscriber and his son, who is homosexual. If you’re interested, this response is included in “We’re Missing the Point in the Same Sex Marriage Debate” from the July 2011 edition in the Pilgrim archives on the web site.